When England reluctantly adopted the fork

Although you can still find Britons who measure other people’s intelligence, level of civilization, and general acceptability by whether they use a fork and knife in the approved manner (and of course there’s only one), the fork first arrived in Britain to the sound of mockery and jeering. 

Unlike the knife and the spoon, the fork doesn’t seem to be one of those things early humans felt a strong urge to invent. 

According to the Smithsonian website, prehistoric humans made spoons out of shells or wood depending what was on hand. 

Forks, though? A few early ones have been found, but the design says they weren’t meant to eat with. They had two or three straight tines, and they were meant to hold something down while you cut it, or maybe work something reluctant out of its shell.

Irrelevant photo: a morning view of the fields.

 

 

The fork dawdles on its way to England

The fork came to Britain by way of Europe, and since this was before the European Union and also before either social media and influencers, it took its own sweet time. 

It got to Europe in the eleventh century by way of a couple of Byzantine princesses who married 1) a Venetian doge and 2) a Holy Roman Emperor. Both sent their new subjects (and probably their husbands) into shock by bringing forks with them and then using them to carry food to their mouths. 

What was so horrifying about using a fork?

Well, “God in his wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers,” according to one of the Venetians.  

I just love the religious habit of knowing what god wants. It holds up so well over time. 

The princess who married the doge died of the plague a few years later and Saint Peter Damian announced that it was god’s punishment for her vanity. 

By the fourteenth century, though, forks were common among merchants. 

Why merchants? 

Why not merchants? It’s beside the point, so we’ll just duck left and avoid that rabbit hole. And while we’re at it, we’ll hop over to England and into the sixteenth century. By then the fork had paddled across the Channel and if you wanted to make fun of someone for being pretentious, all you had to do was associate them with the fork. In Scoff, her book on food and class in Britain, Pen Vogler cites a couple of plays that use them that way.

How did decent people eat?

With their fingers, of course. With their bread. With a knife. Presumably with a spoon, although we won’t find a lot of documentation of spoons early on in English history. The first one mentioned is in Edward I’s wardrobe accounts in 1259. But whether they made it into the written record or not, food that’s cooked needs to be stirred. And food that’s runny doesn’t take well to being eaten with a knife, or even the fingers, although it gets along well enough with bread. 

The poor, Vogler reminds us, would mostly have eaten bread and pottage (a stew made mostly of grain, beans, and vegetables, in whatever combination was available). Fingers and (maybe) a spoon would’ve been plenty. 

The aristocracy would’ve had a servant to pour water over their hands before they ate and they’d have cut and speared their food with a knife and used a combination of bread and fingers for anything that couldn’t be speared and didn’t need to be cut. So they were fussier about it, but they were still eating with their fingers.

Soups and stews were served in communal bowls, which everyone in reach could dip into. Or so says the Royal Museums Greenwich website. (The link’s above). They wiped their hands on the tablecloths, which were plain linen but damned expensive because everything was handmade, remember. How anyone got the tablecloths clean is beyond me.

Forks were strictly for carving, and even that may have caught on slowly. In 1673, Hannah Woolley felt she needed to encourage gentlewomen to carve and serve meat with a fork. 

“It will appear very comely and decent,” she wrote, to use a fork instead of holding the mean with two fingers and the thumb of the left hand. 

And I thought my manners were a little rough. 

 

The triumph of the fork

By the time of the Restoration (that’s 1660 to 1666; thank you, Lord G.), matching forks, knives, and spoons were in use among the upper class. This was fancy stuff and it was all part of a rejection of Puritan plainness. Many sets came with a sheath–a sort of travel case–so if you were invited to a fancy dinner you could bring your own. Even in upper class circles, you couldn’t count on your hosts having enough silverware for a party. 

The forks involved were still two-tine type. A third tine was added in the eighteenth century, and by this time silverware was being mass produced (in Sheffield, in case you’re interested). If you were trying to claw your way into the upper classes, you’d need a whole set of the stuff. But you’d want to show that you’d gotten the right silverware, so the style was to lay it face down and show off the silver hallmark. 

When it wasn’t in use, you’d keep it in a fancy wooden box, sort of like dueling pistols. 

Silverware defined the aristocratic life, and starting in the 1820s the kind of novel that gave readers a glimpse of that world was called the silver fork novel.

By Victorian times, cutlery had moved down the social scale, so the upper classes had to complicate their dinner tables to keep from being confused with their underlings. You needed one kind of fork for oysters, another for lobster, another for snails, for fish, for pastry, for dessert (pastry isn’t dessert? Don’t ask me; I’m a barbarian), for berries, for serving bread. And god help the diner (or worse, the hostess) who didn’t know which to use for what. Toss them into the outer darkness.

By now, damn everything had to be eaten with a fork. If you were served jellied something that wobbled and demonstrated a desire to return to a liquid form? Tough. You ate it with a fork. A banana? You could use your knife to help slice it, but you had to eat it with a fork. 

Crystallized cherries? You weren’t supposed to use a knife on them, only a fork. I’m not sure what you were supposed to do with the pits. Swallow them? Definitely not spit them at the person sitting across the table, although it might’ve broken the tension.

What’s a crystallized cherry? No idea. It involves sugar. And a cherry. 

Now can we let’s leave the upper class struggling unhappily with their crystalized cherries and their forks and see what’s happened to the folks who we last saw eating pottage with their fingers and their bread–and possibly their spoons?

Sure we can. We make our own rules here. Spit the cherry pits if you want to. Just clean them up before you leave.

In 1906, free school meals were offered to the poorest students, although only where the local government saw fit. You know how it is: You feed them once and they only want to eat the next day, so may a  local government didn’t see the point. (Universal education until the age of ten had been introduced in 1880, and a lot of people didn’t see the point of that either.)

With the introduction of free school meals, teachers discovered that their students weren’t used to using a knife and fork or to eating at a table. 

I can’t help thinking that they were used to the idea that parents couldn’t afford to feed their kids. But not to teach them to eat properly? Now that was serious.

 

Class and the fork

In the 1920s,  stainless steel made cutlery affordable enough for the mass market. So ow the upper class needed a new way to keep themselves from being mistaken from the kind of people who’d spit cherry pits. The proper way to use the knife and fork, if you’re hanging around the upper classes–or the well-behaved middle classes–is to hold your fork upside down. No, that doesn’t mean you hold onto the tines and eat with the handle. You hold the handle, but instead of letting the hollow face upward, as logic dictates, you hold it so the hump faces up and all the food you can’t spear slides off. 

Why? So the upper classes can keep their tables free from cherry-pit spitters. It’s a kind of secret handshake, only everyone knows it. It’s just that some of us can’t be bothered using it. Or can’t bring ourselves to do it. Or can’t remember it for the length of a meal.

The people this matters to take it painfully seriously, though. Hold your fork the logical way and you’re (you’ll need to read this next phrase in a disapproving voice) scooping your food. Or even worse, shoveling it. You might get mistaken for someone who eats because they’re hungry.

Vogler quotes Debrett’s–the ultimate British guide to class snobbery–on this: “It may be necessary to use mashed potato to make peas stick to the fork but it is incorrect to turn the fork over and scoop.”

Yes, they’re serious.

How to bake brownies and improve intercultural understanding

Britain and the United States have a special relationship, and in the interest of strengthening it I’m offering you a brownie recipe. Recipes not only build intercultural understanding, they’re entirely noncaloric. Even if we never try them–and let’s face it, most of us don’t–reading them fills us with an unreasonable hum of calorie-free happiness. 

And since this is a calorie-free post, we’ll go for the richest one in my considerable stash of brownie recipes. 

But before I go on, a word about the special relationship: The thing that makes it so special is that Britain knows what it is and the U.S. doesn’t. In Britain, it’s known as the special relationship. In the U.S., it’s known as um, what?

It’s a bit like one person being in a marriage and the other one not. You don’t get more special than that.

But it does mean that the two countries really could understand each other better. So let’s not start with the hard stuff, like whether we’re talking about a relationship, a quick fling, or an open marriage. Let’s start with food, because everybody needs to eat.

Looking west from a British beach. The U.S. is out there somewhere.

By way of unnecessary background, brownies are (a) American and (b) much admired in Britain. The village I live in has an underground economy that runs on favors and I negotiate my way through it (mostly) in brownies. I know, I’m reinforcing a stereotype and I shouldn’t, but it’s so easy this way.

Brownies are also (c) much  misunderstood in Britain, where you can call anything edible, rectangular, and brown a brownie. Then you can hide it under ice cream, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce and no one will think it’s strange. Or–with all that stuff running interference–notice what the brownie itself tastes like.

Or be sure it’s there at all.

Having said that, the recipe that I promise I’ll get around to eventually is British and comes to you by way of a beachside cafe in Trebarwith Strand. The place has, tragically, changed hands, but before that happened it sold a fantastic brownie, which didn’t come buried under a bunch of irrelevant foodstuffs.

And what’s better, it sold a booklet with a handful of recipes, from which I’ve taken this. 

By way of further unnecessary background, the only part of a recipe that can be copyrighted (she said defensively) is the way it’s written. The proportions and methods? Can’t be done. So this is fair game.

Being British means the recipe’s metric. So if you’re in the U.S. of we-use-cup-measurements A., sorry, sorry, and sorry. Over here in the Olde Worlde, you weigh your ingredients. In milllithingies, which are more reliable than using cups and liquid ounces because they stay the same from country to country, which cups and so forth don’t. 

I’d translate the millithingies for you, but you don’t want a recipe where I’ve been turned loose with the numbers. Really, you don’t. Lord Google can manage it for you if you feed him the millithingies one by one.

The recipe doesn’t include whipped cream, chocolate sauce, or chopped broccoli to top the brownie. It doesn’t even have frosting. Good brownies don’t need frosting. So the brownies this makes won’t be beautiful, but they will be good.

Trebarwtih Brownies

200 grams butter (salted, unsalted, deep fried, whatever you’ve got)

350 grams dark chocolate (in Britain, 70%; in the U.S., never mind; settle for dark)

250 grams dark brown sugar (or light brown; I can’t be bothered keeping both on hand)

3 eggs 

1 tsp. baking powder

70 grams flour ( in Britain, that’s plain flour)

Melt the butter and chocolate together over a low heat. Beat the eggs and the sugar together and stir them into the melted chocolate mix. Sift the flour and baking powder together–or if you’re as lazy a cook as I am, just whisk them together. I can’t tell the difference. Stir them into everything else. 

Oil a square pan and line it with baking paper or greaseproof paper, which may or may not be the same thing but do the same job. If you cut the paper so it overlaps the pan on two sides, you’ll be able to lift the brownies out neatly. If you don’t line the pan, you’ll end up with some delicious brownie hash. Which is not to be confused with hash brownies. 

Scrape the batter into the pan. Lick the scraper. Do not, under any circumstances, share.

Bake at 160 C. if you have a fan oven or 180 C. if you have a regular one, or 350 F. if you’re in the U.S., which doesn’t speak Centigrade. Depending on the size of your pan, bake for somewhere between 40 minutes and an hour. My pan’s 8 ¼ inches (21 cm) square and the time leans toward a full hour. Stick a knife into the center to see if it’s done. If the middle’s set or just a bit gooey, that’s fine. If it’s disgusting, that’s not so fine: Stick it back in the oven. 

I know. I used to count on recipes being exact–or at least pretending to be exact. When they didn’t work out the way they were supposed to, it was reassuring to think that someone somewhere was certain and any changes were my fault. 

Any changes aren’t your fault. Either they’re mine or that’s just how life is. Or how baking is. But we’ve already agreed that you don’t have to actually bake these. Baking is what causes calories.

Does our relationship feel more special now?

A perfectly ordinary cheese scone recipe

Nothing (except possibly moaning or rain; or curry) is more British than scones, so let’s take a break from moaning about the coronavirus for a scone recipe. Recipes aren’t  what I do here at Notes, but what the hell, who’s watching?

You will need: 

An oven

A rolling pin

A kitchen, which will, now that I think about it, probably come with an oven, so skip the first item on the list.

A bunch of other stuff that we’ll get to in time.

I only mention all that because I’ve read enough recipe blogs to know that you can’t just give readers the recipe and shut up. You have to fill space. You have to build some kind of excitement. If you don’t do that, readers won’t think they’ve gotten their money’s worth, even though it’s free. And of course, you have to insert photos showing the ingredients gathered lovingly in a spotless kitchen, the process broken into seventeen simple steps, and the resulting whatever-it-is looking so beautiful that cagey readers will suspect you shellacked it. 

A wonderfully appealing and ever so slightly out of focus illustration: Every baking project ends in dirty dishes.

You also have to claim that your recipe makes the world’s best-ever whatevers.

How many bests can this crowded planet hold? How many best-evers does eternity have space for? Look, I think the recipe’s good or I wouldn’t bother you with it, but it’s just a recipe. I’m sure someone else’s is just as good, or better. The world’s full of recipes. Let’s not kid ourselves that this one (or anyone else’s) going to make our lives perfect or our kitchens immaculate. It’s food. Food is lovely stuff, but once you eat it, it’s gone. 

Okay. I’ve filled the requisite amount of space. Here’s the recipe.

Cheese Scones: makes 6 to 8

Ingredients:

Flour (that’s plain flour if you bake in British), 1 ½ cups 

Baking soda (bicarbonate of soda if you’re British), ½ teaspoon

Cream of tartar, 1 teaspoon

Salt, ½ teaspoon

Butter (cold), 1 – 2 tablespoons. / ½ – 1 ounce

Sharp cheddar, about 4 ounces, grated

Milk, just enough to bring the dry ingredients together

 

Heat the oven to 200 centigrade or 400 Fahrenheit. They’re not exact equivalents but try not to think about it. While we’re at it, I used an American-size cup measure, which is a bit different than a British one. The recipe’s forgiving enough that it won’t matter. I don’t bake stuff that isn’t forgiving.

Put the dry ingredients in a bowl. I mention the bowl to keep you from gathering them neatly on the floor, which is the other obvious choice. Take a whisk if you have one and whisk it through the bowl (and yes, its contents) a couple of times. This is the lazy cook’s way of not having to sift anything ever again. If you don’t have a whisk, just mix everything together. I doubt anyone will know. Or sift the dry ingredients if it makes you happy. For all I know, it really does make a difference. 

Cut the butter into the dry ingredients. I was taught to do this with two butter knives, one in each hand, which is about as useless a way to break the butter into small chunks as anyone ever invented. These days, I use a pastry blender. Pastry blenders are wonderful. Or you can do it the British way and rub the butter and flour between your fingers until they blend. 

Grate the cheese and stir it in, then stir in the milk, a little at a time, just until you have a dough instead of a bunch of stuff that doesn’t cling together. Don’t add more milk than you have to or unspecified bad things will happen to you, the most likely of which is that your scones will be tough as an old shoe.

Roll the scones out on a floured surface until they’re, um, yeah, just about thick enough. Maybe ¾ inch. Then cut them into rounds. If you don’t have a reasonable size scone / biscuit / cookie cutter, use a glass. Or cut them into any old ragged shape that suits your fancy. They’ll taste the same. Smoosh the leftover bits together, roll them out again, and cut a few more. Repeat until you get to the last one, which never does look as neat as its brethren and sisteren because you have to shape it with your fingers.

Bake 12 to 15 minutes on a greased cookie sheet (I think that’s a baking tray if you’re British), or line one with baking paper. 

They’re best with butter. They’re plenty good without it.

There. You haven’t thought about the virus since we started, have you? 

Sorry–I ate mine before I got the camera out.

Okay, I’ll play fair, briefly. This photo’s supposed to sit in the empty space just above it, but I couldn’t convince it there.

My thanks to April Munday, who mentioned cheese scones in a comment, convincing me that I had to bake some, and to Arlingwoman, who wrote enough about grits to convince me that posting a recipe would be a good idea. If you want to blame someone for me going semi-off topic this way, blame them. If you don’t want to blame them, go visit their blogs. They’re both worth your time. 

The first London coffee houses

Coffee became a political issue in England for a second or three–or the places where people drank it did. We’re talking about the seventeenth century, when people–men especially–wore clothes that were even sillier than whatever clothing you disapprove of most today. 

Think I’m exaggerating? This was the age of the three-cornered hat. Where, I ask you, did the runoff land when you wore one in the rain? My best guess is that it divided, without fear or favor, onto the shoulders. Unfortunately, I haven’t experimented. I should. We have no shortage of rain lately. All I’m missing is the hat.

I focus on the men’s clothes not because the women dressed more sensibly but because not many of them set foot or floor-length skirt inside coffee house doors. The only way in, if you were of the female persuasion, was to work there or own the place. Or to be disreputable enough, but even then most of them would be closed to you. 

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: pears on our tree this fall.

So coffee houses were overwhelmingly male establishments, places they gathered to read; to talk business, religion, politics, and philosophy; and above all to caffeinate themselves so they could do more of the above without nodding off. 

The coffee, according to contemporary sources, was awful. One man described it as a “syrup of soot and the essence of old shoes,” which may help explain why the British took to tea. The point, however, wasn’t the taste but the caffeine–which is lucky, because once you get into the habit you want more, even if it tastes of old shoes.

And of course the company. 

Coffee made its first public appearance in England in 1637, in Oxford, where it was sold in a coffee house. It reached London in 1652, and by the 1660s coffee houses were multiplying like humans in the age before birth control. By 1675, 3,000 were in business around England. 

It was decades before any male slept a wink. 

That last information dump was from Wikiwhatsia, which I try not to rely on heavily, but part of what I’m telling you is drawn from a BBC radio show, In Our Time, which gave three experts half an hour to talk about coffee (it was fascinating), and the show’s website links to Wikiwhoosits, so I’m going to bend my already-too-flexible rules. (You’ll notice the word try at the beginning of the paragraph.) Screw it. If it’s good enough for the experts, it’s good enough for me.

The show’s available via the website if you want to listen. I recommend it. And even though one of the experts has the same last name as I do, she’s not a relative. Very few people who share my name are. Long story, which we’ll skip.

Like most substances that have just come on the market, coffee was promoted as the cure for pretty much everything. Think of it as the newly legalized cannabis of its day. As one of the experts put it, “It cured anything you wanted it to.”

It was also something you could drink that didn’t get you drunk. Water, remember, was polluted. Most people drank ale or beer and–we can assume–were at least slightly drunk most of the time. Small beer was less alcoholic than strong beer and ale, but alcoholic it was. In coffee, finally, Londoners had a drink that kept them sober. In “The Lost World of the London Coffee House” (the link’s above, turning the words “contemporary sources” blue, and doing it without a swear word in sight), Matthew Green credits coffee with laying the foundations of England’s economic growth in the decades after its introduction. I have no idea if he’s right, but it’s an interesting thought. 

To get into a coffee house, people paid a penny. For that they got not just coffee (for all I know, that cost extra) but conversation, the latest newspapers, which were just starting to appear, and whatever pamphlets were making the rounds. Each place had its own tone, clientele, politics, and leanings. Some were intellectual hotbeds, gathering writers, philosophers, thinkers. In others, workingmen gathered to read and talk politics. They were called penny universities. The entrance fee would have put coffee houses out of reach of the poorest workers, but even so I’ve found a quote from one writer who describes shoe-blacks and assorted riff-raff gathering to talk about topics that I imagine the writer thinking were far above them. You can hear his disapproval leaking into the spaces between the words and I can’t swear that a bit of exaggeration about the men’s occupations didn’t sneak in with it. Make what you will of the contradictory information. 

Other coffee houses gathered businessmen from one field or another, making them places to do deals and exchange the gossip of their trade. The London Stock Exchange began in a coffee house. So did the insurance group Lloyd’s of London as well as Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses.

Some high-brow coffee houses became private clubs. They gave way to the gentlemen’s clubs of the eighteenth century–and no, gentlemen’s clubs didn’t have anything to do with lap dances, although they were probably just as despicable, in their staid way.

And to make sure we don’t leave anyone out, some coffee houses attracted criminals. Not the kind who did respectable business. We’re talking about acknowledged criminals here. In some you could gamble. In others you could get a haircut and listen to a lecture on abolishing slavery, or so one source swears.

Don’t like the hair in your coffee, sir? Most customers feel it improves the taste.

One coffee house was the conduit to a nearby whorehouse. In another–which didn’t last long–you could only speak Latin. The Folly of the Thames was moored on the river and you could dance on deck. Which leads me to repeat that it wasn’t that no women could enter any of them, only that no respectable ones could–although in some no woman could at all.

Yeah, the good old days.

Having said that customers sorted themselves out according to interest, trade, and so forth, I’ll dance right on and contradict myself, since the sources I found do: Some talk about people mixing and debating without respect to title or class. Customers were expected to take whatever seat was available, which meant sitting next to whoever was already there. Tables were shared, not private. Whether you were sitting with people like yourself or people from a class that made you break out in hives, the coffee house ethos was that you talked to both acquaintances and strangers. 

It was because coffee houses were places to talk that they became a political issue. If you went to the right ones, you could hear the latest court gossip, even if you weren’t a courtier. And court gossip was inherently political. This made coffee houses a force of democratization–or sedition, depending on your point of view, and that’s where they got into trouble with Charles II, who in 1675 tried to ban the selling of coffee (also tea and sherbet) by royal proclamation. The punishment was to be £5 for every month a shop defied the ban, and if it continued “the severest of punishments that may by law be inflicted.” 

The ban never came into effect, though. Charles was pressured by his ministers–coffee drinkers, the lot of them, for all I know–to withdraw it.

But before we start cheering this force for democratization, let’s mention that coffee also drove the spread of slavery (the Caribbean and Brazil) and colonialism (Java and Ceylon). As far as I’ve been able to find out, that didn’t become a political issue in England. Maybe the news about what it took to grow the stuff didn’t leak into public consciousness. Maybe people looked the other way. It’s surprisingly–and horrifyingly–easy to do.

Have I mentioned how fond history is of irony?

Inebriation news, mostly from Britain

British pubs are closing at the speed of a slow-moving cultural apocalypse.

If you’re rereading that sentence and looking for actual information, stop now. There’s less in it than meets the eye. We’ll get to actual information in a couple of paragraphs, but we’re still at the part of the post where I’m splattering verbiage in the hope that you’ll read on. In other words, it’s all fireworks, fancy footing, and mixed metaphors.

Not necessarily a great strategy, but a common one. Now for the information:

Since 2001, more than one in four British pubs has closed. According to the Office of National Statistics (yes, the number of pubs in the country is worthy of official notice), there were 52,500 in 2001 and 38,815 at some unspecified point in 2018.

I’m taking it on faith that that really is more than one in four.

Irrelevant photo: Primroses. This is the season for them. I know I’m engaging in un-British activities when I say this, but I’m grateful to live in a climate where flowers bloom in the winter.

But that 2001 high point isn’t particularly high. In 1577, there was roughly one pub (or more accurately, one boozer) for every 200 people in England and Wales. That includes alehouses, inns, and taverns. Ah, now that was the golden age of getting shit-faced. It helped that sipping water was worse for your health than getting plastered all day every day, although a lot of what people drank would have been small beer–beer with a (relatively) low alcohol content.

Which you can still get drunk on, or mildly pie-eyed. You just have to work harder.

Today there are–well, I can’t find the number of pubs per person for the country as a whole, but Edinburgh has 274.7 per 100,000 residents. London has 40. The difference between the two numbers is enough to make me think they set up their studies differently –that maybe one city’s skewed the figures by counting shrubs as part of the population or the other got mixed up and counted bottled instead of bars.

Let’s just agree that Britain today has fewer bars per person than it did in the golden age. Fair enough?

Small, independent pubs are the most likely to close. Chains are still opening new, identikit branches. 

Why does anyone care? In the U.S., if someone told you the bar on the corner was closing, you’d be likely to say, “Great. No more drunks revving their cars at 1 a.m.” But unlike American bars, British pubs are social centers–a kind of public living room. They’re places a soap opera will latch onto as a way for all its characters to stumble over each other and create mayhem in each other’s lives.

Not that people don’t roll out bellowing at 1 a.m. Or singing. They do. And it annoys the neighbors. But pubs have enough of a role that it balances out the annoyance, at least somewhat.

The blame for pub closures gets thrown in all direction–high taxes, high prices, changing drinking habits, higher wages. Who knew that people working in pubs are so selfish that they think getting paid enough to live on is a good idea? Don’t they know an entire culture rests on them living on the pay they’re offered?

Oddly enough, it was a pub owners association that mentioned higher wages as part of the problem.

*

The pubs available to members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords aren’t under threat. Unless being noticed by the public threatens them, which it may eventually. Professor David Nutt, a former government advisor on drug policy, has suggested breathalyzing MPs before they vote.

Why? Well, Parliament has thirty bars on site. Or more. Or possibly not that many. The journalist whose work I’m quoting couldn’t be sure and fell back on saying he’d been told there are nearly thirty.

A different article estimates about a dozen bars. That’s a noticeable difference. Maybe the second article only counted bars, not places that served both food and alcohol. Maybe no one’s ever stayed sober long enough to do an accurate count. The first article listed a lot more than a dozen by name, so I’m going with the higher estimate.  

Parliament’s drinks are cheap because they’re subsidized, and that costs the country £8 million a year. Or more, since that number comes from 2016.

The result is a lot of drinking, and stories of drunken MPs are easy–not to mention fun–to find. In 1783, William Pitt the Younger (not to be confused with William Pitt the Elder) was drunk enough to vomit behind the Speaker’s chair during a debate. Herbert Asquith (prime minister from 1908 to 1916) drank enough that he was known as Squiffy.

What’s squiffy? Slightly drunk.

According to tradition, the chancellor of the exchequer–that translates to the finance minister–is allowed to drink inside the chamber when he, she, or it delivers the budget. Probably because everyone figured they needed a stiff drink, but maybe the numbers make more sense that way. Parliamentary traditions are very strange and they’re treated as if they made absolute sense.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, “was said to have gotten so drunk before a budget debate that he had an embarrassing accident in his trousers and had to be locked in his office to prevent him from going to the chamber anyway. He drank himself to death shortly after losing his seat in 2015 general election.”

MP Eric Joyce was convicted of headbutting another MP in one of the bars and banned from drinking in parliament. (I have no idea how well that worked. I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on it being effective.) MP Mark Reckless missed an important vote because he was too drunk. As part of his apology (either that time or a different one–I haven’t been able to sort it out) he said, “I don’t know what happened. I don’t remember falling over.”

If that doesn’t excuse him, I don’t know what will.

All the major political parties are represented here, and some of the small ones.

All that drinking may contribute to the multiple incidents of sexual abuse that have been surfacing lately. Or may not. Close all the bars and we’ll find out.

So was Professor Nutt serious when he suggested breathalyzing MPs? Absolutely. As a culture, we don’t allow people to drive a car when they’re the worse for wear. Why should they be allowed to drive a country? 

The reason Professor Nutt is no longer an advisor on drug policy is that he said publicly that illegal drugs cause less damage than alcohol. I’m beginning to understand why nobody wanted to hear that.

*

But let’s not limit ourselves to politicians. Who are the country’s heavy drinkers? Well-to-do professionals, it turns out. People who earn more than £40,000 a year. The lower your income, the less you’re likely to drink much.

That sound you hear? That’s the sound of a stereotype smashing itself to bits on the floor of Parliament.

*

But why should we limit the discussion when the world offers us so many ways of getting shitfaced? The good folks who make Marlboro cigarettes are in negotiations to take over a Canadian company that produces marijuana. Shares in both companies soared when the news got out. Another tobacco company and the Coca Cola company are making similar moves. 

Maybe you had to be around in the sixties to find that funny.

*

A conference on the role of alcohol in human society was, as far as I can figure out, dedicated to the proposition that social drinking helped humans create social cohesion. The earliest humans got together for feasts. Then they found fermented fruit. Then they learned to help the fermentation process along. 

A recent excavation in Turkey found 10,000-year-old stone troughs that had been used to brew booze. In A Short History of Drunkenness, Mark Forsyth argues that the earliest cultivated wheat, einkorn, may have been grown not to make bread but beer. Researchers say it makes lousy bread but very good beer, although if humans had never tasted bread before, I’m not convinced they’d have thought it was bad. And they could easily have eaten the grain boiled. Boiled wheat is not only edible but good.

Which isn’t to say that they didn’t brew it. But let’s give the last word on this to an expert:

“We didn’t start farming because we wanted food–there was loads of food around,” Forsyth says.

*

Eco-minded brewers in Britain have started making beer from sandwich bread that would otherwise get thrown away. Some 24 million slices are thrown away every day.

The link above is to an article from Good Housekeeping. Do not for a minute kid yourself that I read Good Housekeeping or that I’m good at housekeeping. It was the unlikeliest of the available links, so of course I chose it.

How does anyone know how many slices get thrown away? Is there a wasted bread agency somewhere? Has the government outsourced the work or is it still being done by civil servants? Your guess is as good as mine and possibly better.

I imagine every cafe, restaurant, and cafeteria in the country having to make a note when a slice of bread’s thrown away. And every home kitchen. I once had a job where someone decided to find out what we were actually doing when we were out of their sight and asked us to fill in a form every fifteen minutes, noting down what we were doing at that exact moment.

Filling out your damn form, that’s what I’m doing. I wouldn’t want to base any serious research on the answers we gave, but it was for their own good. If they’d known, it wouldn’t have made them happy.

But back to bread and beer: Maybe their survey’s more accurate than the one I helped sabotage. Maybe smart refrigerators watch what we do outside their perfecdtly chilled interiors and send the Wasted Bread Commissin a message each time we set aside the ends of the loaf and wait till they go moldy so we can toss it away without feeling guilty.

For the record, my refrigerator is not smart. Neither is my phone. Neither are my dogs. The cat’s a fuckin’ genius but can’t be bothered to report on us. Cats are good about things like that.

I bake most of our bread and we eat it from one end of the loaf to the other. If you want to make beer, use your own bread.

Tea, opium, and the East India Company

Is any drink more innocent than a nice cup of tea?

Almost any of them, and I say that having done no comparative research whatsoever. But forget the comparisons. Innocent tea is not. Its history is deeply interwoven with opium. Here’s how it worked:

In the seventeenth century, England began drinking serious amounts of tea, which it bought from China. China looked at what England offered to sell it in return and said, “Ho, hum,” and didn’t drink it / wear it / eat it / or more importantly, buy it. Which meant, since England wanted to keep drinking tea, that silver poured out of England and into China. And what with silver being heavy and all, the world was turning more slowly on its axis.

The world only turned properly when more silver flowed into England than out.

I shouldn’t say stuff like that or we’ll have another one of those incidents with the Druids worshiping the Great Brussels Sprout. (An explanation is hidden behind this link. You’ll find it a few paragraphs below the photograph. It wasn’t one of my finer moments, which is probably why I can’t help thinking it’s funny.) I could shorten my explanations by making a grain-of-salt logo and adding it when I say something ridiculous. We’ll all have hypertension by the time I’m done.

Irrelevant photo: begonia blossom

Anyway, with all that silver sitting in China instead of England, where nature had decreed that it belonged, the earth’s rotation was going out of sync with the standard twenty-four hour day and something had to be done.

Enter the East India Company, also called the English East India Company, or a bit later the British East India Company once Britain acquired a political existence, to distinguish it from assorted other countries’ East India companies, which it competed with.

The English East India Company got its charter in 1600 from Queen Elizabeth. A trade imbalance wasn’t the problem yet. What Liz wanted was to have it break the Portuguese and Spanish hold on trade from the Indian Ocean. Which the company did, in part by piracy.

Yeah, those were times to make the heart swell with pride. When we talk about making Britain great again…

No, that’s too far off topic.

A combination of a weakening government in India and competition with the company’s French counterpart (the French East India Company–no one involved had the least bit of imagination) ended up with the English company taking direct control of territory in India. And deciding that holding territory was such fun that it took more. And for a hundred years, starting in 1757, it was both a military and a political power, regulated by no government and answerable only to itself. And it ruled of India.

Yeah, that’s the point where I can’t help thinking I’ve misread something. This is a private business openly governing a country–and not even its own country. In 1803, it had a private army twice the size of Britain’s.

India didn’t grow tea yet. Its exports included silk, cotton, sugar, indigo dye, and (here we get to the point at last) opium. The East India company established a monopoly on opium in Bengal.

I couldn’t find much information about the impact this had on India, but its production relied on forced labor and the trade would, inevitably, have led to some addiction. The shift away from small farming also meant a shift away from food production, which kept people fed but wasn’t where the money could be made. Before the East India company took over, India’s ability to feed its people had been equal to or a bit better than Europe’s. (Europe’s wasn’t great at the time, but I’m not sure whose was.) What British did rule was to commercialize agriculture, after which the country experienced repeated famines. You can find a grim timeline of them here.

Now let’s go back to China for a minute. Opium reached China in the sixth or seventh century, and it was used (as it had been for centuries in India and the ancient Mediterranean) medicinally–to relieve pain, the help people sleep, and maybe for a bit of fun here and there. With the introduction of tobacco, though, came the idea of smoking the stuff, and in this form it became much more powerful and much more addictive.

China’s emperor banned recreational use. The edict was roughly as effective as the US war on drugs has been.

China banned imports in 1729. Which was a problem for the East India Company, because it had a lot of it and was £28 million in debt from its wars in India and from all the Chinese tea it had to pay for in that heavy, annoying metal.

So what’s a law-abiding company / government / army to do when a foreign government blocks its access to a market? The East India Company started smuggling the stuff, and by 1739 it had gotten Britain and China involved in the Opium Wars, which eventually, in the name of free trade, opened the Chinese market to opium imports. The balance of payments problem was–from Britain’s point of view–taken care of.

And from China’s point of view? When it banned imports, 200 chests were coming in a year. By 1858, 70,000 were coming in and addiction had become a massive problem. I’m not sure about its balance of payments but I’d bet a damn good chocolate cake that it Britain’s improved China’s got worse.

But Britain got more than tea in this exchange. It got opium as well.

In western Europe, medical opium had been recommended as early as 1527. Paracelsus called the opium mixture he used laudanum–Latin for “worthy of praise.” Or so one source says. The last time I tried to translate something into and out of Latin (it happened to be raisin), we ran into no end of odd translations, so this time I’m not even looking it up, I’m just pretending I know what I’m talking about. Who’ll notice if I’m wrong?

Laudanum was about 10% opium.

The more Europeans traded in opium, the more it made its way to their home countries. In the eighteenth century, doctors were both prescribing it and using it themselves.

As the nineteenth century creaked onward, opium escaped the tinctures it initially came in and was available to be smoked. The Victorian public could read and be horrified by tales of opium dens (which were dedicated to smoking opium), although not many dens seem to have existed outside of London. In a nice little irony, though, they were associated in the popular imagination with–shudder–foreigners, especially the Chinese. Who else would bring such a dangerous drug to someone else’s country?

Having read about the horrors of opium smoking, the Victorian public could then put down its newspapers and buy laudanum from the chemist (which if you’re American is a druggist) or at the market. No big deal. It was the aspirin of its day, available everywhere and taken for just about everything: coughs, rheumatism, colicky babies, hiccups, and women’s troubles (no, that didn’t mean the social and economic condition of woman, although that was enough to drive anyone to opium; it also didn’t mean men; it meant anything associated with–I’m blushing just to think of it–the reproductive system).

It also mended broken chair legs, straightned curly hair, and curled straight.

Yes, yes: grain of salt.

People who used opium in its respectable forms included Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. And even though it was less addictive in this form than it was if you smoked it, it was still addictive enough to get you into trouble. The Brontes’ brother, Branwell, is said to have been an opium addict, not to mention an alcoholic and an all-around mess. I’m not sure what form he used. Probably anything he could get his hands on, which is most likely to have meant laudanum.  

So predictably that they sound like a caricature of themselves, the guardians of public morality saw the use of opiates among the poor and working class as a problem and among their own class nothing worse than as a habit.

Now let’s go back to the medical uses of opium, because it was a useful painkiller. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a German scientist developed the even more effective morphine from an opium base. It was so effective that some 400,000 soldiers came out of the American Civil War addicted to it.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, scientists were looking for a less addictive painkiller. Working from a morphine base, they came up with heroin. 

And they all lived happily ever after.

Anybody want a cup of tea and a dash of irony? I’ve got the kettle on. A nice cup of tea never hurt anyone.

Christmas in Britain

brussels sprout-flavored crisps

Relevant photo: These are brussels sprouts flavored crisps. Or potato chips, if you’re American, which I mostly am. Notice that lovely seasonal package they come in?

Brussels sprouts are part of the traditional British Christmas dinner, but they’re not usually eaten in the form of potato chips–or crisps, as they’re called in Britain to distinguish them from what Americans call french fries, which are called chips.

Have I lost you yet? Oh, good.

This is the first year I’ve seen brussels sprout-flavored potato chips, and I don’t predict a great future for them, even as a seasonal oddity. I ate three out of I didn’t count how many in the package I bought: one to see what they tasted like, a second to make sure I hadn’t hallucinated the first, and the third to see if they might just possibly grow on me.

Boy, did they ever not.

I threw the rest away.

By way of background: I do like brussels sprouts, but only in their natural, vegetabilian form. And I don’t, as a habit, waste food, but for some things you have to make exceptions.

If you celebrate Christmas, I wish you a merry one. Please be careful what you buy if you’re tempted to grab something in nice-looking seasonal packaging.

And if you don’t celebrate Christmas, I wish you a happy whatever you may or may not celebrate at this time of year. It should make you very happy that your tradition isn’t responsible for inventing brussels sprout-flavored crisps.

Only in Britain: What did I get for Christmas this year? Why, a lovely, hand-crocheted brussels sprout. With eyes. In real life (if that’s what I lead, given that I’m taking pictures of a crocheted brussels sprout with eyes), it’s green, not blue.

Recipe links: scones, clotted cream, and other good stuff

I’ve run a series of posts about food, in response to which Jean at Delightful Repast sent me links to recipes, all for several things that have either I or someone leaving a comment mentioned. I thought I’d pass them on for the benefit of anyone out there who cooks. Or who knows someone who can be bribed or strongarmed into cooking.

Clotted cream. A number of people asked what it is, so here you go–make your own.

Scones. Because what’s clotted cream without a scone and jam?

English muffins, which Jean swears are just called muffins in England, although I’d swear I saw them sold as English muffins once at the Co-op.

Crumpets, which I can’t think of anything to say about. Except that I’m ending that sentence with a preposition and, yeah, it’s okay: The English language likes to end sentences with prepositions. (I tried to maneuver “with” to the end of that sentence, but I can’t do it.)

Teacakes, a.k.a. toasted teacakes, but you have to toast them before you can calll them that.

And finally, a brandy-soaked British fruitcake. This works for Christmas and for weddings, although not if you’re in the U.S., where wedding cakes are cut from sponge rubber and then iced elaborately.

How tea soaked through Britain’s social structure

The world’s falling apart around us, my friends, but we can panic later. In the meantime, this is Britain, so let’s have a nice cup of tea.

Or, since it’s hard to boil water online, let’s talk about tea instead.

China has been growing and drinking tea since the third millennium B.C.E., or so legend has it, although it can only be documented from the third century B.C.E. Which isn’t bad. That’s an entire nation that’s known how to stay awake for well over two thousand years.

And with that quick nod to the larger picture, we’ll leave them not sleeping while we hop continents and a pocketful of centuries, because what we’re talking about is how Britain became a tea-drinking nation.

The British weren’t the first Europeans to latch onto the drink. That was the Portuguese. Traders and missionaries who sipped it in “the East,” as one of Lord Google’s minions puts it, and brought some home as souvenirs.  

Irrelevant and out of season photo: begonias

“The East” is kind of a big area, but we’ll just nod cynically and move on.

It was the Dutch who first made a business out of importing the stuff to Europe. That was in 1606, when they were trading out of Java, the port that gave coffee its nickname. By the time tea made it’s wind-powered way to Europe, it cost a small fortune, so drinking it was a way for the upperest of the upper crust in first Holland and then western Europe in general to show off their couth, not to mention their money.

You ever notice how much more specific our information is about, say, Europe, than about that vast, undifferentiated East?

But we were talking about tea. And England. Or Britain, since we’re in that murky period when England and Scotland had the same king but not the same government and Wales  had the same king and government but didn’t want either or them because it was less than delighted about having been conquered. As people tend to be.

To keep things relatively simple, we’ll keep our eye on England, which wasn’t about to be seduced by this effete continental brew. England was a nation of beer drinkers, thanks, except for people with money, who weren’t opposed to wine and might drink a bit of tea now and then for medicinal purposes, since it invigorated  the body and kept the spleen free of obstructions.

Obstructions? That’s when the spleen’s on its way to an important meeting and some damn county department’s closed the road just because it’s washed out or something silly. The spleen isn’t the most easy-going of organs. You know the word splenetic? Bad-tempered, cranky, ill-humored, and other synonyms. So, a nice cup of tea and the road is magically open before it.

No, I don’t understand it either, but medicine, like spelling, was more imaginative back then. 

According to a website about tea, tea, and nothing but tea, The first dated reference to tea [in Britain] is from an advert in a London newspaper, Mercurius Politicus, from September 1658. It announced that ‘China Drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee’ was on sale at a coffee house in Sweeting’s Rents in the City. The first coffee house had been established in London in 1652, and the terms of this advert suggest that tea was still somewhat unfamiliar to most readers, so it is fair to assume that the drink was still something of a curiosity.”

It wasn’t until Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662 that the English took tea drinking to their hearts. Or more accurately, to their thin, aristocratic lips. Catherine loved her tea, and legend has it that since she was coming to a land of barbarians she brought a hefty supply of tea leaves in her very substantial baggage.

With Catherine drinking the stuff, tea suddenly looked less like medicine and more like a status symbol–a term that, however well it was understood, hadn’t been invented yet.

Tea was still expensive. A pound cost roughly what a “working class citizen” made in a year. What kind of working class citizen, since men’s and women’s pay differed dramatically? (Ah, the bad old days. Aren’t you glad we’re past all that?) Put your money on the male variety of citizen and you’re less likely to lose it. The female variety are generally referred to as “women,” not “citizens.” Or if the citizenship bit is important, their sex will be specified.

Odd, isn’t it?

As tea drinking spread among aristocratic women, so did tea paraphernalia. Tea drinkers needed imported porcelain teapots. And the thinnest of thin cups. And dainty dishes for sugar. They may not have actually liked tea, but they sure as hell knew how to make a ritual of it.

All those peripherals were imported by the Portuguese as well.

It was at this period–in other words, right from the start–that they began adding milk to their tea. The cups were so delicate that they cracked if the tea went in without something to cool it.  

Starting in 1664, the East India Company–a British creation–moved in on the trade and imported tea into England, and from aristocratic ladies, tea made its way down the social scale into the coffee houses, where middle- and upper-class men did business, and into the homes of middle- and upper-class women, who didn’t get out the way the men did.

Tea was still too expensive for the working class. The East India company got itself a monopoly on British imports and kept the price high. And tea was taxed heavily, which means that by the eighteenth century it worth smuggling. By the end of the eighteenth century, organized crime networks had gotten involved. Smugglers brought in seven million pounds of the stuff. How does anyone know, since they’d have been wise to keep it out of sight and uncounted? Good question. But legal tea? Only five million pounds came into the country.

Tea–especially the smuggled stuff–was often mixed with leaves that had been brewed once and then dried. Or with leaves from other plants. To make the color more convincing, some clever devil hit on the idea of adding sheep manure. Or so say the articles I read. People kept drinking it, so it couldn’t have been too off-putting.

In 1784, the government reduced the import tax and tea smuggling pretty well ended.

As the price came down, tea became a “common luxury” for working class people, and by the 1830s had become a “necessary luxury.” As the temperance movement grew it became a substitute for alcohol.

The working class diet at this point was made up mostly of bread, potatoes, and tea.

Why would class people buy something that didn’t fill their bellies and had no nutritional value when money was scarce and food wasn’t plentiful? Hot tea with sugar offered energy, a brief break from work, and the illusion that you’d had a hot meal. 

In the 1820s, the East India Company began growing tea in India, and in the 1860s it began to be grown in Sri Lanka, which was Ceylon at the time even though it occupied the same spot on the globe as it does now, under the new name. The price dropped.

Predictably enough, as soon as the working class started drinking serious amounts of tea, the overseers of public morality went into a panic about how it would affect them. Excessive tea drinking, they warned, would cause weakness and melancholy. But only in working-class people. Not among their, ahem, betters.

Then the public moralizers realized that if working people drank tea they’d have less time and money to drink beer, so they settled down and accepted the situation.

Tea became so much a part of British life that in the first and second world wars the government took control of importing it to ensure that it stayed both available and affordable. They were afraid morale would collapse without it.

And today? Britain sips its way through 60 billion cups of tea per year. That’s 900 cups per person, but that includes people who’ve just been born, so the rest of us have to drink their share. And sixteen- to thirty-four-year-olds aren’t drinking their share either, possibly because they’re afraid it’ll stain their teeth but possibly because tea doesn’t make a statement.

A statement?

The article that enlightened me about this quoted food futurologist Morgaine Gaye, who said, “A cup of English breakfast or builder’s tea is only cool when you are slumming it. You might have a cup of tea at your mum’s, but not when you are out or in a cafe because it doesn’t say anything.”

Slumming it at your mother’s? I’m going to tell her mother she said that and–I can predict this much of the food future–she won’t be eating there this holiday season. Or if she does, she’ll be drinking lukewarm water from the dog’s bowl.

Anyway, this defection by the irresponsible young means their brown-toothed elders–those of us who don’t want anything that lives inside our cups to make statements to the world at large or even whisper to us personally–have to drink even more.

And to make ourselves feel okay with that, we’ve started asking if it doesn’t, oh please, have some medicinal effects. In other words, since we’re drinking it anyway, doesn’t it cure something?

The definitive answer is, maybe. The evidence disagrees with itself. Pitch your tent with the people who say it does and you may be wrong but you’ll feel better about it all. 

Kate Fox, an anthropologist and the author of the inspired Watching the English, reports that the higher up the class structure you go, the weaker the tea. Which is why I’ve decided not to hang out with the queen anymore. I like a nice, strong brew and furthermore I like to drink it with people who aren’t afraid to swear, or who at least (a) understand the words and (b) don’t pass out when I do.

Fox also says, “Tea-making is the perfect displacement activity: whenever the English feel awkward or uncomfortable in a social situation (that is, almost all the time), they make tea.” Which may be why so much of it gets made.

And once you’ve brewed it, it’d be wasteful not to drink it. And since the young aren’t doing their share, it’s up to those of us who are over 34.

*

After Christmas, we’ll finally get around to the connection between tea and the opium trade.

How the scone discovered Britain

Like so many of the things I write about here, the history of the scone is murky.

But first a definition. And if you already know what a scone is, stay with me for the pleasure of watching me fall on my face as I struggle to do something simple.

Definition

Lord Google will tell you that the scone is a small, unsweetened or lightly sweetened cake. Lord Google couldn’t find his ass with his many floury hands. A scone is not a cake, it’s a baked thing made without yeast.

And that, my friends, is why I’m not in the dictionary business.

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline. Oh, hell, I think I used this one not long ago.

Wikiwhatsia does a more accurate if less specific and less linguistically convincing job by defining it as a baked good.

Can a baked good survive without enough friends to become baked goods, plural? And if it can, is a baked evil lurking out there somewhere? Don’t we have enough to worry about in the world today?

The first stumbling block in defining the scone is that what things taste like runs off the edge of the English language. And probably of other languages.

The next stumbling block is that different recipes find different ways to make the dough rise, so you can’t define it by that. It can be made with assorted combinations of baking powder; cream of tartar; bicarbonate of soda, which Americans know as baking soda; self-raising (or self-rising) flour, which is cheating but go on, it’s your kitchen and no one’s watching. So you end up defining it by what it doesn’t use: yeast.

Defining things by what they don’t include is inherently dangerous. Scones also don’t include chopped liver. Or gravel. They don’t include fire extinguishers or (at least in my experience) pickled onions. The world is rich in things they don’t include.

But in spite of that, let’s charge in where angels fear to bake and talk about what a scone isn’t: It’s not highly sweetened. It’s not a cake. It’s not a baking powder biscuit. It’s not an American scone because the American scone takes the British scone and adds steroids. It’s also not an anvil or a soup or an armchair.

You’re welcome. I do try to be helpful.

And there endeth in failure my attempts to define the thing. Aren’t you glad you stuck around?

Variations

Whatever the scone is, the British eat it happily, generally with butter and jam or (in the southwest, if they’re going to hell in a handbasket) with clotted cream and jam. Or if they’re me (which of course they’re not; I’m more American than British, no matter how long I’ve been here), just with butter.

All that changes if the scones are savory, which means not sweet and spelled with an extra U but it went wandering somewhere and I can’t be bothered looking for it just now. Savory scones can involve cheese or herbs or anything along those lines, in which case skip the jam and stuff and just slather on some butter and be happy.

History

The scone’s origins (and we’re back, at last, to where I should have started) are murky.

A food reference site tells me they were either originally Dutch (from the Dutch for beautiful bread, schoonbrot, or Scottish, a descendant of the Scottish oat cake. Let’s take those possibilities one at a time.

I humbliy petitioned Lord Google to translate schoonbrot for me. First he corrected my spelling: It’s schoonbrood. Then he told me it means clean bread.

I told him to dust the flour off his hands because he was getting my screen dirty, but if he’s not listening I’ll admit to you that I can actually see a connection there.

I slipped a few more words into his all-devouring maw and learned that schoonbrot is Middle Dutch, so I can keep my snarky remarks about the site where I found the word to myself.

A WikiWhatsia article translates the Middle Dutch as fine bread and says the language was first brought to England by about a third of William the Conqueror’s soldiers, who came from Dutch-speaking Flanders, and more bits of it were brought by Flemish refugees between the eleventh until the seventeenth centuries, who were fleeing floods, overpopulation, and warfare.

“When England’s population numbered 5 million, London alone had tens of thousands of Flemings, while an estimated third of the Scottish population has a Flemish background,” it said.

That’s not the same as saying that a third of the population of Scotland was Flemish, but never mind. The point is that the English language picked up a pretty fair dusting of Middle Dutch and (irrelevantly) that Britain has assimilated large numbers of refugees in the past without losing its essential Britishness, whatever the hell that may be.

So there, and also harumph.

All of that is actually more interesting than scones–at least to me–but, sigh, we’re talking about scones so let’s go back to our topic.

I made a quick effort to find out what schoonbrood was (and may still be) and found that it’s a company that sells “art by a number of painters” (a “perfect gift for someone starting his/her life in Maastricht. or leaving the city after graduation”) and also a not-uncommon last name. If it’s yours, I can point you at ways to trace your ancestry or to a possible relative who’s raising money for pancreatic cancer. Not, I assume, for the disease itself, which needs no help from us and isn’t interested in money anyway, but either for research or to support people who have it.

None of which was what I was looking for.

I tried “schoonbrood recipe” and came up with a recipe for harissa coleslaw with pomegranate and an article on emulsion polymerization (no idea what that is–I know my limits). It’s that last name business. So never mind. We’ve spent a lot of time on this and learned almost nothing. We’ll just have to assume the one baked good and the other baked good are in some way related to each other and are willing to form the happily pluralized phrase baked goods.

We’ll also assume that both are very clean because around here we wash our hands before cooking.

But where are my manners? Thank you, Lord G. I have left the usual offering of data. I’m not sure how much is in there. More than I expected, I expect.

And with that, we can move to the next possible origin for scones: Scotland in the early 1500s. These proto-scones would have been rolled out to the size of a smallish dinner plate, baked on a griddle, and cut into wedges, and they’d have been made without baking powder (or soda) because baking soda only became commercially available in 1846 and baking powder hit the store shelves a bit later. Although the ancient Egyptians did use baking soda as part of the mummification process.

If that doesn’t put you off the next baked good you see, I’m not sure what will.

Baking powder, to be technical about it, is just baking soda plus some other stuff that makes it easier to use, but it revolutionized baking. You can find an explanation here.

The scottish proto-scone would have been made of oats and barley. Or of just one of them. Whatever was grown locally, I expect.

And now we get a bit where scones go upmarket.

According to the food reference site I linked to above (and you’ll need several grains of salt to do with this, so have some at hand, please), “Scones became popular and an essential part of the fashionable ritual of taking tea in England when Anna, the Duchess of Bedford (1788 – 1861), one late afternoon, ordered the servants to bring tea and some sweet breads, which included scones. She was so delighted by this, that she ordered it every afternoon and what now has become an English tradition is the ‘Afternoon Tea Time’ (precisely at 4:00 p.m.). They are still served daily with the traditional clotted cream topping in Britain.”

The site’s American, which you can spot by its recipes (cups, not grams and millithingies) and by its conviction that England stops dead at 4 p.m. and has afternoon tea. Also by its claim that all of Britain has scones with clotted cream.

Geez. Who knew Americans were so easy to spot?

So that’s two grains of salt.

The third one? A food historian, Joyce White, says the Duchess of Bedford’s early teas would have been dainty bread-and-butter sandwiches, not scones.

It is true, however, that the D of B introduced the idea of food with her afternoon cup of tea, because until she got loose on the tradition, having a cup of tea involved nothing more than having a cup of tea. After a longish evolution and the democratization of tea (because in her day it was both expensive and aristocratic), it’s indirectly thanks to her that we now have people talking about eating their tea. No one except outsiders like me thinks that’s an odd thing to say.

The D of B also started that business of high tea and low tea. Low tea was set on a low table. High tea involved a meal and was eaten off a table high enough to slide chairs under.

I tried to find out when the scone escaped the D of B’s elegant clutches and lowered itself to be eaten by the likes of you and me, but Lord Google and his minions (of whom, in spite of myself, I am one) aren’t interested. But escape her they did, and they now cost less than half a pound for ten at a discount supermarket. Or more. It all depends where you shop.

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Now that the scone’s baked, bagged, and priced, we can move on to tea. Because what’s a scone without a cup of tea? In the next couple of weeks, I hope to inflict on you first a post about tea and then one about opium, which most people don’t ask for with their scone and tea but is related anyway.